Cannibalism and the Strange Case of Nathaniel Bar-Jonah
Zachary Xerxes Ramsay
Something had been very wrong in Great Falls long before the cold winter morning of February 6, 1996, a Tuesday, the day that 10-year-old Zachary Xerxes Ramsay disappeared on his walk toward his school, Whittier Elementary, a simple routine that he had performed many times before. Zach, as his family, friends and teachers knew him, like just about everyone else in Great Falls, had no apparent reasons to fear for his safety. To young, carefree Zach, it was just like any other day as he left his mother’s apartment on the 400 block of Fourth Street North shortly after 7:30 a.m. In all likelihood, all Zach was concerned about that morning was getting to school to meet and play with his friends outside before the bell rang.
Appartments where Zach lived with his mother.
As he walked down the street kicking up snow, he entered an alley as he made the short trip to his school, located only six blocks away. It isn’t known whether he noticed the man sitting in the off-white, four-door sedan parked in the alley behind a house on the 400 block of Fifth Avenue North, with the engine idling. Zach was a smart kid by all accounts, and it seems reasonable to presume that he would have hastened his pace toward school or changed his route if he had noticed the man in the car. That fact, along with many others, likely will never be known.
Alley Near Zach’s House
What is known is that Zach never made it to school that fateful day. His friends waiting for him thought that he must have been sick and stayed at home. He was marked absent by his teacher that morning after the bell rang, and in keeping with school policy Zach’s mother was called and notified of her son’s absence. Soon, one of the biggest stories, not to mention most bizarre, to hit Great Falls was to break wide open to a stunned public who did not want to believe the worst. The truth was that they had no idea yet about the darkness that had befallen their otherwise peaceful and happy community.
Zachary Xerxes Ramsay
Zach’s mother, who worked at a restaurant in town, was of course alarmed by the call from Zach’s school shortly after ten that morning. Working hard to raise two other children, ages 5, and 2, while Zach’s father, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, was away serving at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Zach’s mother didn’t know which way to turn or even to whom to turn to at first. Although highly concerned, she did her best to remain calm and not to panic.
“I wondered if he was skipping school,” his mother said later. “I went home, he wasn’t there, so I immediately went to the school….My concern was not to freak out—my concern was to get as much [information] at that moment as possible.”
Doing the only thing that she could think of at the time, she searched the neighborhood for her son, calling out his name and retracing the steps he normally took to school. But there was no sign of him. Striking out at the school, and rather than delaying and losing any more precious time, she notified the police that her son had disappeared. A pair of officers was promptly sent to her home to take the initial report.
Zach, the worried mother tearfully told the officers, was not a shy boy. He liked talking to people, and it would not be unusual if he talked to strangers, but he had been taught never to get into a car with someone he didn’t know, and he understood the dangers associated with doing so. Even though his mother had considered it, Zach wasn’t known to skip school, making it highly unusual for him not to show up for class on time. Besides, she said, Zachary was looking forward to going to school that day. He was scheduled to receive an award for his artwork—he loved art. It was one of his favorite classes.
Previously there had been only one problem with him running away, and that had occurred in January, about a month earlier right after the New Year holiday. However, he was only gone for about an hour, and, knowing that his mother would be worried sick about him, he called her from a restaurant and asked her to come and get him. After all was said and done everyone, including the police, agreed that it was highly unusual that Zach would just disappear. Most missing children are located at a friend or relative’s home, usually within an hour after their absence has been noticed. But this clearly wasn’t the case with Zachary. No one to whom he was close had seen him. It was as if he had vanished into thin air.
Zachary Xerxes Ramsay
Zachary’s mother provided a detailed description of her son to the police, as well as recent photographs. He was born on December 18, 1985, a week shy of being a Christmas baby. He was the product of an interracial marriage—his father is black and his mother is white—and he had a dark complexion with dark hair and brown eyes. Zach’s mother described her son as 4 feet tall and weighing approximately 100 pounds. He also had a small scar on his forehead between his eyebrows, and wore glasses. However, he did not have his glasses with him that day—he had forgotten them at home. He was also described as having blotchy skin at the time of his disappearance, and dimples. When he left for school that morning he was dressed in stone washed jeans, a football jersey with his surname, Ramsay, on the back, black high-top tennis shoes, and a blue denim baseball jacket with green sleeves.
Great Falls Police Department Patch
The Great Falls Police Department moved swiftly. Their first priority was to try to find the missing child, hopefully alive. If that effort failed, then they could move toward finding out what happened to him, and why. For now, everyone just hoped that Zach would turn up unharmed.
Wasting no time, police officers mobilized and went door to door in their search for Zach. Neighbors were asked if they had seen the boy, and were asked to be on the lookout for him. Residents all over town were asked to check their outbuildings and garages, anywhere that a child might be able hide out for a while. The police also checked abandoned vehicles, as well as vehicles that were only being used infrequently. They searched Zachary’s school and the school grounds, interviewed his friends, and questioned members of his family thoroughly, to no avail.
Entrance to Gibson Park
Search parties made up of police officers and citizens alike searched the banks of the Missouri River at several points in town, and a massive search effort was conducted at Gibson Park, a large park located in north-central Great Falls near where the Missouri River bends gradually eastward, not far from Zach’s home. Searchers dug through snow banks, and bloodhounds, put onto Zachary’s scent using the boy’s toothbrush that his mother provided, searched along the river and through the park as well. The searchers and their dogs literally hunted for the child, in places all over town that could be used as a hiding place by a youngster or places that could be used to dispose of another person’s remains, including garbage bins. However, there was no sign of the boy.
A Car in the Alley
Neighbors questioned by the officers who had gone door-to-door throughout the neighborhood along Zach’s route to school were eager to help. One of the neighbors interviewed told the police that he had seen a man parked in the alley directly behind a house in the 400 block of Fifth Avenue North sometime between 7 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. The neighbor said that the man had been driving a small, off-white, four-door car.
Alley Near Zach’s House
Later, several members of a family who resided nearby told the police that they had seen Zach at about 7:30 a.m. when he walked down the alley behind Fifth Avenue North. One member of that family told the police that Zachary was nearly struck by an off-white, four-door vehicle as he came out of the alley and attempted to cross Fifth Street North (in Great Falls, streets run north and south and avenues run east and west). Another witness told the police that she had seen Zach walking down the same alley at about 7:30 a.m., leaving little doubt as to the route that the boy had taken to school that morning.
Yet another witness told the investigating officers that he had seen Zach at approximately 7:45 a.m. as he crossed Sixth Street North, and that a man had been following him. He said that the boy was crying, and that the man appeared to be upset. The witness provided a sketchy description of the man and, to the cops looking for the missing child, it now appeared that the vicinity of where the witness had seen the man following the boy was where Zach’s trail ended. The problem with that scenario, however, was the timeframe—it does not take fifteen minutes to walk from the alley behind Fifth Avenue North, where he was reported as having been seen at 7:30 a.m., to the location at Sixth Street North where he was seen at 7:45 a.m. Of course it was possible that the witnesses had been mistaken about the times that they had seen Zach, or it was possible that he had stopped to talk with the man in the car and that, possibly, had resulted in Zach crying. Zachary’s friends were waiting for him to arrive that morning before school started, but none of them had a clue to Zach’s whereabouts when the bell rang at 8:15 a.m.
A Great Falls lithography shop printed up hundreds of posters with Zach’s photo and a description of what he was wearing when he left for school that morning. The local newspaper, The Great Falls Tribune, ran photos of the missing boy and articles about his disappearance the next day, marking only the beginning of what would become extensive coverage by that newspaper and other media sources. Later, service men and women from nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base volunteered on a number of occasions to search for Zach, to no avail.
A Detective Enters the Case
The Great Falls Police Department
Detective Bill Bellusci, at that time in his late-thirties and an eighteen-year veteran of the Great Falls Police Department, was assigned as the lead investigator in Zachary Ramsay’s disappearance. The assignment brought back vivid memories for Bellusci who, eight years earlier, and worked the case of the disappearance and murder of 9-year-old Dolana Clark. Dolana, who left home on her bicycle, was not seen or heard from again until her body was found two years later in the Little Belt Mountains, southeast of Great Falls in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Bellusci, who had investigated a number of cases involving sex offenders over the years, hoped that Zachary’s case would turn out differently, but his gut feelings told him otherwise from the investigation’s outset.
The local FBI office was notified of Zachary’s disappearance, and Special Agent James Wilson, stationed at the Great Falls FBI office since 1992, was assigned to provide assistance to the local police. Since 1996, the FBI was brought in anytime it was suspected that a child had been abducted, even if the crime wasn’t obviously an interstate issue. Bellusci, a bespectacled man with dark hair, a receding hairline and a full mustache, had an idea about who might have snatched Zach off the street almost immediately, and he and Special Agent Wilson began pursuing it.
Something had been indeed very wrong in Great Falls before February 6, 1996, a horror that began with the arrival barely five years earlier of a man who called himself Nathaniel Bar-Jonah. From the first day that Zachary Ramsay went missing, Bellusci was convinced that he knew who was responsible for the child’s disappearance. Although the state police, the agency responsible for registering and keeping tabs on sex offenders, had provided Bellusci with a list of 10 known sex offenders living in Zach’s neighborhood, Bellusci’s gut feeling told him that the person who had nabbed Zachary was not on that list. Instead, Bellusci added an eleventh name to the list, that of Nathaniel Bar-Jonah. Bar Jonah, 38-years-old at the time of Zachary’s disappearance, had a disturbingly long history of kidnapping and choking young boys, and the possibility of young Zach falling victim to Bar-Jonah brought back chilling memories for Bellusci. Of course, Bellusci also had to consider Zach’s mother as a suspect—relatives are always suspects in such cases until they can be ruled out.
A Previous Allegation
In 1993, only a few days before Christmas, Bellusci had gone out on a call to investigate the alleged sexual assault of an 8-year-old boy, making it a Christmas that everyone concerned would have preferred to have forgotten. When the trail led to Bar-Jonah, Bellusci recalled how Bar-Jonah had denied fondling the 8-year-old boy and proclaimed his innocence. In that case, the boy had accused Bar-Jonah, then 35, of fondling him while Bar-Jonah babysat for his parents, who had gone to Helena, some 120 miles south of Great Falls, for the evening. Although there was a lack of evidence in the case—it was the boy’s word against Bar-Jonah’s—it was decided that it should be prosecuted anyway. But when he denied the accusations to Bellusci, he added a statement that made Bellusci’s blood run cold, a chilling comment that the detective would never forget. Bar-Jonah told Bellusci that if he had done what he was being accused of, he would have killed the boy. Although prosecutors held out, hoping for a plea-bargain, Bar-Jonah held out as well, and the case was eventually dropped three years later when Bar-Jonah’s attorney filed a motion arguing that his client’s right to a speedy trial had been violated.
“The day Zach turned up missing, I went over to Nate’s place,” Bellusci told a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, referring to Nathaniel Bar-Jonah. “He wasn’t there. The house was dark…Bar-Jonah stood out in my mind because I’d worked with him before. I knew he had been violent before and I knew he was still active.”
Although the statement that Bellusci had made about knowing that Bar-Jonah was still active was based on a gut hunch, he was sure that if given enough time he would be able to show that his hunch was on the mark.
The next day, February 7, 1996, Bellusci asked two uniformed police officers to return to Bar-Jonah’s home to question him about Zachary’s disappearance. However, no one answered the door despite the officers’ repeated knocking, and the house appeared quiet—almost too quiet. The stillness on the cold winter day seemed somewhat eerie. Without a warrant they couldn’t force the door and go in, even though upon reflection they would have liked to—everything had to be done by the book. With little else that they could do, the officers placed a business card on the door to Bar-Jonah’s home asking that he call when he returned. However, Bar-Jonah never made the call, and the police failed to follow up until later. By the time the police did in fact follow up on the February 7 visit, Bar-Jonah had seen a lawyer and refused to talk to the police again. He had “lawyered up,” refusing to talk to them, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. In this way, Bar-Jonah’s legal maneuvering at the time and the fact that many predatory sex offender laws weren’t on the books yet had temporarily allowed him to slip through the cracks of a system that was supposed to protect the public.
Bar-Jonah had moved to Great Falls in 1991 from Massachusetts. Although he had been on probation in Massachusetts for sex offenses against children, he was not required to register in Montana as a sex offender. Megan’s Law was still being debated nationally at the time Zachary Ramsay disappeared, and hadn’t even been written, much less proposed, by lawmakers when Bar-Jonah arrived in Montana, and was only an idea that was being bounced around at that time. Although a national push was on to implement Megan’s Law state-by-state, it had not been signed into federal law yet by President Bill Clinton by the time Zach disappeared, and wouldn’t be until May 17, 1996. Although Megan’s Law was only a couple of months away from becoming nationally effective, known sex offenders were not yet required to register with the local police and were not yet part of an evaluation system designed to determine their overall risk of re-offending and the level of danger they posed to the community, with tier 1 offenders being the least risk and tier 3 offenders being the greatest. Once the tier system was in place, there is little doubt that Bar-Jonah could have been categorized as anything but a tier 3 offender.
However, because the system was not then in place, a crack in the system had turned into major hole through which repeat offenders like Bar-Jonah could fall. No one in Montana knew, yet, just how sordid Bar-Jonah’s past really was, and it would be some time before his past caught up with him. “I don’t know if we dropped it or if we overlooked something,” Great Falls Police Chief Bob Jones said later regarding the Zachary Ramsay case and Bar-Jonah’s connection to it. “We were going to get back to it, and we didn’t.”
Perhaps if the police in Great Falls had known a little more about Bar-Jonah’s prior history in Massachusetts they would have been more aggressive early on about pursuing him as a suspect in Zachary’s disappearance. As it turned out, despite Bellusci’s suspicions and gut feelings about Bar-Jonah, the investigation became chaotic and focused on a number of different people at first, allowing Bar-Jonah to remain free to do as he liked for the next three years.
Nathaniel Bar-Jonah Mug Shot from Massachusetts
In compiling background information, the detectives in Great Falls learned that Nathaniel Bar-Jonah had been born in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 15, 1957, as David P. Brown, the youngest of four siblings. While attending first grade in Webster, Massachusetts, between the age of 5 and 6, Brown had what is believed to have been his first run-in with authority when he allegedly choked a female classmate without warning.
In 1973, at age 15, Brown cut letters and words out of magazines and composed a note that he used to attempt to entice two young boys from Webster to a cemetery, offering them $20 and a surprise. In that case, the mother of the two boys declined to press charges against Brown. She felt it would be best if he received psychiatric help, and felt that he wouldn’t receive it through the criminal justice system.
Bar-Jonah, as David Brown, apparently had his first direct encounter with law enforcement when, at age 18 and also in Webster, he dressed up as a police officer and nabbed an 8-year-old who was on his way to school. He pleaded guilty to assault and battery and was sentenced to a year on probation.
Two years later, on September 23, 1977, at age 20, Brown again disguised himself as a police officer and enticed two young boys into his car near a movie theater in Shrewsbury. Once he had them in his clutches, he handcuffed them and drove them to a tent he had pitched in a wooded area. After ordering the boys to take off their clothes, he began strangling them. One of the boys, however, was able to escape and called the police. Armed with a description of Brown and his car, the police arrested him following a short chase along one of the state’s less-traveled highways. When they opened the trunk, they found the other boy, still handcuffed. Thankfully, he was alive.
Three months later, Brown pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping charges stemming from the September 23 incident. Although he was sentenced to 18-20 years at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Walpole, a maximum security prison, he was later transferred to a medium security prison at Concord. On June 5, 1979, he was sent for observation to a state-operated treatment center for sexually dangerous offenders in Bridgewater, in part because of sexual fantasies that he had shared with a prison psychologist. At the conclusion of the observation period, he was sentenced to an indefinite term at Bridgewater.
According to one of the therapists at Bridgewater, “Brown’s sexual fantasies, bizarre in nature, outline methods of torture extend… to dissection and cannibalism” and “express a curiosity about the taste of human flesh.” Brown also reportedly told one of the doctors at Bridgewater that his interest in torture had been present for a long time and that the violent fantasies that he entertained were his main source of sexual stimulation.
From Brown to Bar-Jonah
The Great Falls investigators learned that sometime around 1988 or 1989 that Brown began using the name Bar-Jonah. In fact, he began calling himself Nathaniel Benjamin Levi Bar-Jonah, but later shortened the name to Nathaniel Bar-Jonah in most instances of its use. He apparently told friends and relatives that he had adopted the Jewish name because he wanted to know what it felt like to be persecuted and discriminated against. It was also at about that time that he began petitioning for his release from Bridgewater. His requests were initially turned down because his psychiatric evaluations noted his “violent fantasy life, as well as his risk to the community.”
Approximately two years later Bar-Jonah, along with two psychologists that had evaluated him, won a hearing before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Walter E. Steele. After the two psychologists testified that Bar-Jonah was no longer a threat to society, Steele ordered him released on February 12, 1991. Administrative and other issues prevented Bar-Jonah’s release until July of that year. He would later offer public praise to the two psychologists that helped win his release.
“I’ve seen God take a hopeless situation like when all avenues were closed. It seemed…I’d never, ever be released,” Bar-Jonah later wrote in a letter that he sent to a newspaper. “Yet God told me I would and I believed Him even though the evidence of my release was not there. Then totally out of left field I got 2, yes 2, Christian psychiatrists who believed in me. That was a miracle in it self [sic] to find 2 Christians in that profession in Massachusetts. The state had a lot of evidence on their side, yet the judge sided with me.”
However, he was unable to stay out of trouble for long. Barely a month later, Bar-Jonah climbed into a car parked at a post office in Oxford and sat on the 7-year-old boy that was waiting in the front seat for his mother to return. Although the boy screamed for help, his cries were barely audible because of the big man sitting on top of him. When the boy’s mother returned to the car, Bar-Jonah ran away. He made it to his home and changed his clothes in an apparent attempt at altering his appearance, but it was futile. Too many people had seen him running home. Based on his description and statements from witnesses, he was arrested later that day. He told the police that he had climbed into the car to get out of the rain, and that he was planning to ask to be driven home when the driver returned to the vehicle.
Two weeks later, in a decision that would later outrage the citizens of Great Falls, Montana, the Worcester County District Attorney allowed Bar-Jonah to plead guilty to assault and battery as part of a deal in which he would be sentenced to two-years’ probation on the condition that he agreed to relocate to Great Falls, Montana, where he would live with his mother. Within two years of his arrival in Montana, on December 18, 1993, Bar-Jonah was charged for allegedly molesting the 8-year-old boy in the case initially handled by Detective Bill Bellusci.
A Chaotic Investigation
Because parents throughout Great Falls were now suddenly aware of the potential dangers facing their children on a day-to-day basis and were naturally more fearful than usual, they inundated the police department with tips, sightings, theories, and occasionally clues as to what may have happened to Zach. Taking the calls wasn’t, of course, nearly as work-intensive as the follow-up investigations that the calls created. It was the follow-up of all the false leads or tips that made the investigation chaotic. Typically, if a disappearance is not cleared up within the first 48 hours or so, not only does the trail leading to the victim’s whereabouts or to a suspect become cold but rumors begin pouring in, most of them from well-meaning citizens. Most of those rumors, unfortunately, which numbered in the thousands in the Zachary Ramsay case, do not lead anywhere and often only serve to frustrate the investigators assigned to the case.
Bellusci worked the case full-time for the first 30 days or so, and carried Zach’s photo with him wherever he went, showing it to people he questioned to determine if anyone besides the initial witnesses recalled seeing the boy. He also showed photos of Bar-Jonah to many of those people he questioned in an attempt to determine if anyone had seen the suspect with Zach. At one point he approached Cascade County Prosecuting Attorney Brant Light about obtaining a warrant to search the duplex home that Bar-Jonah shared with his mother located on the 1200 block of First Avenue South. However, after considering the detective’s request, it was decided that there wasn’t yet sufficient cause or evidence tying the case to Bar-Jonah to bring the matter before a judge. There were several other sex offenders living in Zach’s neighborhood at the time that served to make it difficult to focus solely on Bar-Jonah as the primary suspect.
An Interesting Lead
Early in the investigation Bellusci developed a strong lead that showed promise, when a truck driver and convicted sex offender talked about Zachary to customs agents at the Montana-Canadian border. By that time Zachary had been missing for several weeks and word about his disappearance had spread far and wide. On hearing the truck driver mention Zach’s name, the customs agent promptly contacted authorities and detained the driver and his rig, a semi-truck. The FBI searched the vehicle thoroughly, and took samples of carpet fiber and other materials from inside the cab. Making matters appear even more promising that they had their man, the truck driver confessed to kidnapping Zachary the day he disappeared. However, following considerable investigation, Bellusci learned that the truck driver had lied to him. None of the evidence seized by the FBI linked the truck driver to Zach’s disappearance, and Bellusci discovered that the driver’s truck was broken down and being repaired in Missoula, nearly 150 miles from Great Falls, the morning that Zachary disappeared.
Bellusci wondered why the truck driver confessed to something with which he could not possibly have had anything to do. A nut case perhaps. Or maybe the driver was someone looking for attention, a little notoriety. Unfortunately such things happen in criminal cases and only serve to make the investigator’s work that much more difficult.
Mount Olive Church attended by both Bar-Jonah and Zachary
There were several important aspects of the case that troubled Bellusci, however, and would keep Bar-Jonah as a suspect firmly embedded in the forefront of the detective’s mind. One was the fact that Bar-Jonah was known to work occasionally in the area of Zach’s home and school, shoveling snow off of the sidewalks at the Bitterroot Apartments. Another was the fact that Bar-Jonah and Zachary attended the same church at various times, and that Bar-Jonah had spoken to an acquaintance about Zach only days before his disappearance. Bar-Jonah was also known to drive his mother’s 1997 Toyota Corolla, off-white in color and similar to the vehicle that witnesses had said almost struck Zachary the morning that he disappeared. However, it was all circumstantial evidence at that point, and wasn’t sufficient to obtain a search warrant for Bar-Jonah’s residence.
It should be noted that the police had not excluded all other suspects in Zach’s disappearance in favor of Bar-Jonah—at least not yet. For a considerable time, both before and after Bar-Jonah had come into the picture, investigators also looked at some of the other offenders in the area. Nor had they yet ruled out Zach’s mother as a potential suspect, either. However, despite the time and effort spent on investigating her, there was no evidence to implicate her and the focus eventually turned back to Bar-Jonah almost exclusively.
Three Years Later
Early on the morning of December 13, 1999, Detective Robert Burton was driving to work at the Great Falls Police Department when he saw Nathaniel Bar-Jonah walking near an elementary school. The nine-year veteran of the department recognized Bar-Jonah from his prior scrapes with the law in Great Falls, including the 1993 incident in which Bar-Jonah had been charged with sexual assault for allegedly fondling the eight-year-old boy that he had been babysitting, and he was now also fully aware of Bar-Jonah’s priors in Massachusetts. Detective Burton was concerned because he had seen Bar-Jonah on two other occasions in the same area a week earlier. Burton contacted his dispatcher and requested that a patrol unit be sent to the area to make contact with Bar-Jonah to determine what he was doing in the area of the school.
Bar-Jonah was nearly detained at the Lincoln Elemntary School.
It was still dark outside when officers Brunk and Badgley, within minutes of being dispatched, arrived on location in the 400 block of 27th Street South in two separate patrol cars. When they located Bar-Jonah, Brunk turned on his patrol car’s spotlight and shined it on the big man in the street. Bar-Jonah was dressed in a dark-blue jacket similar to that which a police officer might wear and a knit cap. As he stood illuminated in the darkness, he kept his hands inside his pockets. Brunk instructed Bar-Jonah to remove his hands from his pockets and to move in front of his patrol car. Bar-Jonah, however, ignored Brunk’s request. Brunk made the request a second time, and Bar-Jonah continued to ignore him. With Officer Badgley standing by as back-up, Brunk asked Bar-Jonah if he had something in his pocket. Bar-Jonah hesitated, and then responded that he was carrying a stun gun.
Lincoln Elemntary School
Following proper police procedure to help ensure their own safety, the two officers instructed Bar-Jonah to place his hands on Brunk’s patrol car. With Brunk keeping an eye on Bar-Jonah, Badgley conducted a pat-down search. In the search Badgley found two cans of pepper spray, a toy gun, and a badge on Bar-Jonah. Badgley, following a brief review of Montana statutes about impersonating a police officer, contacted his shift commander to report everything that had happened. The shift commander directed him to release Bar-Jonah pending further review of the statutes and the two officers’ reports.
The next day Detective Bellusci, in part because he had been the investigating officer on the 1993 sexual assault case against Bar-Jonah in which the charges had been dropped, received the assignment to follow-up on Brunk and Badgley’s early morning encounter with Bar-Jonah. Following consultation with the district attorney’s office, it was decided that Bar-Jonah should be charged with impersonation of a police officer and carrying a concealed weapon—the toy gun.
Bar-Jonah’s Mother’s House
On December 15, 1999, Bellusci prepared an affidavit for a search warrant to search Bar-Jonah’s place of residence based on probable cause relating to the aforementioned charges. By this time Bar-Jonah had moved out of his mother’s house and into a shabby apartment building in a different area of town. Among the items Bellusci listed in his affidavit that he believed he would find at Bar-Jonah’s residence was a stun gun, police badges—real or replicas, police clothing, devices typically used to restrain someone such as handcuffs, guns, and anything else that could be used as evidence or construed as contraband. A judge promptly approved Bellusci’s search warrant, and it was executed that same day.
During the course of the search, police officers seized a blue police coat, a silver toy revolver, a badge, a stun gun, a baseball-style hat that had “Security Enforcement” as its logo across the front, two disposable cameras, two albums with cutouts of children inside, a coat with a badge inside one of the pockets, and numerous other photographs and negatives. Interestingly, the cops also found a pulley on which a rope, cord, or chain could be connected. The pulley was attached to the ceiling in Bar-Jonah’s kitchen. Its significance to the case wasn’t immediately known, but it was photographed and noted just the same. The cops also found a document that described in detail how to tie a variety of knots, and an article entitled “Autoerotic Asphyxia.” The possible implications of such items were, of course, horrific, particularly if children were involved. At the conclusion of the search, Bar-Jonah was arrested and charged with impersonation of a public servant and carrying a concealed weapon.
Two days later Bellusci applied for and was granted a second search warrant to search for additional photographs of young children, adults, or both, any undeveloped film, and any other items of evidence related to the offenses for which Bar-Jonah had been charged. Among the items found during the second search was a bulletin board containing numerous pictures, undeveloped film on disposable cameras, 28 boxes containing miscellaneous papers and newspaper clippings, and a list of names of Bar-Jonah’s previous victims. The list also contained the name, “Zachary Ramsey” [sic].
“There are lists of children that you can just turn page after page after page,” said Brant Light, Cascade County District Attorney. “He had notebooks where there’s pictures of children cut out of annual school books and newspapers with their names underneath—just like collecting baseball cards.”
Among the names on the lists were several boys from Webster, Massachusetts, three of whom Bar-Jonah was convicted of abducting in the mid-1970s. Police believed that as many as half of 54 names on one list were those of children that Bar-Jonah had grown up with
When all was said and done, there were at least 3,500 photographs of children found inside Bar-Jonah’s apartment. When Bellusci had the film developed and prints made, he found Bar-Jonah and three boys in various states of undress.
Little Boy Stew
Bar-Jonah Jailhouse Recipe
Among some of the other items seized from Bar-Jonah’s residence during the execution of the search warrants were encrypted letters, presumably composed by Bar-Jonah, describing such sick and twisted culinary dishes as “little boy stew,” and “little boy pot pie,” and the phrases, “lunch is served on the patio with roasted child” and “Barbecue bee sum young guy.” The coded messages referenced what police believed were cannibalistic recipes, and talked about dishes that he had cooked and served to neighbors.
Another Bar-Jonah Jailhouse Recipe
The police also revealed that they had seized a large section of plywood from Bar-Jonah’s residence during one of their searches. The plywood had a large smear across it, wide and indelible, and there was evidence that it had been scrubbed repeatedly with bleach. It was also determined that the plywood had been struck numerous times with a sharp object of some kind. Many people wondered whether the plywood had been used as a cutting board. They had also seized a meat grinder that had hair inside it. During a search at one of his previous residences in Great Falls, police dug up portions of the garage and sifted through nearly two tons of dirt in which they found 21 fragments of human bones. Although it was eventually determined that the bones were those of a child, a boy believed to be between the ages of 8 and 13, DNA analysis showed that the bones were not those of Zachary Ramsay.
Garage Near Bar-Jonah Residence
When the detectives decided that they wanted to examine the sewer pipes beneath the house in which Bar-Jonah had previously resided, they were told by the owner that the pipes had all been replaced after Bar-Jonah moved out because they were always getting clogged.
At one point during their investigation, police uncovered witnesses who claimed that Bar-Jonah had held cookouts for his mother, neighbors and friends after Zachary Ramsay’s disappearance but prior to him becoming a suspect in the case. He served up spaghetti with meat sauce, casseroles, meat pies, and charbroiled “deer burgers” to his guests. Police alleged that the source of the meat he had used in his dishes had been Zachary Ramsay. Bar-Jonah’s diners later told the police that they thought the meat he had served them tasted strange. His guests told the police that when they had asked Bar-Jonah why the meat tasted strange, he reportedly told them that he had gone hunting and had shot a deer.
An analysis of his shopping habits through study of his financial records indicated that he had not purchased anything significant at a grocery store for nearly a month after Zach disappeared. Did that mean something? No one knew for certain. He could have had plenty of meat and food on hand and hadn’t needed to go to the store, or he could have gone shopping in that timeframe and simply paid cash for his purchases.
Great Falls Hardee’s where Bar-Jonah worked.
At varying times during the timeframe of Zach’s disappearance, Bar-Jonah had held a part-time job in the kitchen at Malmstrom Air Force Base and another at a Hardee’s fast-food restaurant in downtown Great Falls. Speculation ran high that he could have used his position at these two jobs to further get rid of evidence by feeding it to unsuspecting servicemen and women on the military base and to hungry customers at the fast-food restaurant, but there was never sufficient evidence to prove it.
If the implications that Bar-Jonah’s “menu” items were made with the meat of a young boy as one of the primary ingredients were not enough, the detectives obtained statements from people who were close to Bar-Jonah indicating that he had talked considerably about Zachary Ramsay’s disappearance. He had allegedly made statements that Zach’s body would never be found because it had been “chopped up” and strewn about at a variety of locations. The investigators also found witnesses who would be willing to testify that they had seen a bag filled with soiled clothing of the size that would fit a young boy inside Bar-Jonah’s apartment, as well as a pair of gloves that appeared to be stained with blood.
For reasons known only to Bar-Jonah, the burly suspect in Zachary Ramsay’s disappearance saw fit at one point during this period, amid all of the city’s buzz about the alleged cannibalism being attributed to him, to allegedly taunt Zach’s mother by telling her that he had “hunted, killed, butchered and wrapped the meat” of her son.
Another Detective Enters the Case
Because of the growing concern over the photos of Bar-Jonah and the young boys, Great Falls Police Sergeant John Cameron was assigned to assist in the investigation. Cameron, who had extensive experience and specialized training in cases involving sexual abuse, particularly in the area of interviewing victims, carefully examined all of the evidence that had been seized from Bar-Jonah’s apartment and prior residence. Of particular and immediate interest was the list of children’s names written in Bar-Jonah’s own handwriting. Cameron and FBI agent James Wilson worked together analyzing the list, and were eventually able to determine that two of the names on it were of male children who lived in the apartment directly above Bar-Jonah’s. Cameron made contact with those children, and he recognized that the boys’ photographs had been taken with disposable cameras that had been obtained during the searches of Bar-Jonah’s apartment. There were photos of the two boys inside his apartment, on his couch, and on his bed, and were from a roll of film that also depicted Bar-Jonah lying on his bed, nude, displaying his penis in various stages of erection. Naturally, Cameron and everyone else associated with the case were immediately concerned that the boys had been victimized by Bar-Jonah.
Cameron didn’t waste any time. With Wilson present, he immediately contacted the boys who lived upstairs and interviewed them. One of the boys, who was 14-years-old at the time, confirmed that Bar-Jonah had indeed sexually abused him. He also provided information indicating that Bar-Jonah had also sexually abused his cousin, a fact that Cameron and Wilson confirmed a short time later upon interviewing the cousin.
During the course of his investigation Cameron learned that Bar-Jonah, a white man who had assumed the persona of a Jew, had been involved with Christian fellowship youth groups at a couple of local churches. He had purportedly met some of his alleged victims at these churches, according to published reports and court documents. Because he and Zach had attended one of the same churches, police believed that he had met the child at one of the fellowship groups.
On July 5, 2000, as a result of Cameron and Wilson’s work on the case, Bar-Jonah was charged with three counts of sexual assault, one count of aggravated kidnapping, and one count of assault with a weapon. He was held at the Cascade County Jail in Great Falls. Bar-Jonah pleaded innocent to all of the charges.
Cascade County Jail in Great Falls
Meanwhile, Cameron and his colleagues decided that it would be prudent to search for possible victims of Bar-Jonah’s in Canada, noting that Great Falls is not a great distance from the border of the U.S. and Canada.
“We can put him crossing the border several times and we are working that angle,” Cameron said. “Alberta and Saskatchewan are the two places I think we were able to place him in, sometime in the mid-nineties.” However, despite their efforts to find a solid Canadian connection to Bar-Jonah, the detectives came up empty-handed.
“This case has really shaken people to their core,” said Great Falls Police Chief Robert G. Jones. “It is going to take a long time for things to return to normal.”
Jones’ assessment seemed reasonable given the fact that much of Bar-Jonah’s life was devoted to a sordid fascination with torture, dissection, and the consumption of human flesh. What made it all the worse was that children were always involved.
After considerable legal maneuvering, much of it instigated by Bar-Jonah himself, including motions to throw out evidence, requests for changes of venue, and changes in his legal representation because of lawyers who wanted to be off the case, his trial for the sexual abuse of the three boys in Great Falls finally got underway on February 20, 2002 after being moved to a Butte, Montana courtroom.
Cascade County Court House
During the week-long trial, Bar-Jonah’s lawyers accused the police of coercing statements from the children involved. The oldest boy, a teenager at the time of the trial, acknowledged under questioning by one of Bar-Jonah’s attorneys, Gregory Jackson, that he had gone to visit Bar-Jonah while he was in the Cascade County Jail. The teenager also testified that he had written Bar-Jonah a letter while Bar-Jonah was in jail, commending him for being a friend.
“Nathan,” a portion of the letter read, “you treated me really nice. You have never harmed me in any way. I really miss you, big guy. You were like the dad I never had.”
However, an FBI expert testified that the young witnesses were telling the truth regarding the allegations of sexual abuse. Testimony was provided that Bar-Jonah had placed a rope around the neck of one of the boys and had hung him from the pulley in the ceiling of his kitchen, and details regarding erotic asphyxia were provided to a stunned jury and a courtroom full of spectators. The prosecution offered as evidence the photo albums seized from Bar-Jonah’s apartment that contained thousands of pictures of children, including several pictures of one of the alleged victims. Other testimony from the victims was provided about sleepovers at Bar-Jonah’s apartment and how he had touched them in a sexual manner.
Prosecutor Brant Light characterized Bar-Jonah as an adult who literally had groomed his victims, spending months befriending the children so that he could, one day, sexually abuse them. “This is a man who, at age 42, had only one ambition,” Light said. “To pursue young boys and molest them.”
On February 25, 2002, the jury found Bar-Jonah guilty on one count each of sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping and felony assault. He was found not guilty on one count of sexual assault, and the jury was deadlocked on another count of sexual assault. The court declared a mistrial on the final, deadlocked count.
The court determined that Bar-Jonah be designated a Level III sex offender who poses an extreme danger to society, and found that his prospects for rehabilitation were virtually non-existent. The court sentenced Bar-Jonah to Montana State Prison for 10 years for the aggravated kidnapping conviction, 100 years for the sexual assault conviction, and to 20 years for the felony assault conviction. It was ordered that the sentences be served consecutively, with no possibility of parole.
Bar-Jonah and his attorneys indicated that an appeal was forthcoming.
Zachary Ramsay Age Progression
Despite the amount of evidence that had been amassed against Nathaniel Bar-Jonah in the disappearance and likely murder of Zachary Ramsay, it now appears that no one will ever know for certain what happened to the child. Zach’s mother, despite the fact that Bar-Jonah had told her that he had “hunted, killed, butchered and wrapped the meat” of her son, told the police and publicly stated that she did not believe that Bar-Jonah had anything to do with her son’s disappearance. She had apparently seen a videotape of a child she believed was her son, supposedly taken at a military base in Italy. Even though the police had been able to show that the child on the tape was not her son, Zach’s mother continued to believe that Zach was still alive. A psychic that she consulted confirmed her in her belief. Although the police believe that Bar-Jonah had killed the boy and had disposed of the his remains by feeding them to Bar-Jonah’s unsuspecting mother and her friends in the form of hamburgers, spaghetti sauces, stews, and casseroles, a public statement from Zach’s mother saying that she would testify in court if necessary that she did not believe that Bar-Jonah was responsible for Zach’s disappearance, death or both made the case a long-shot for the prosecution to win.
“I did not want Bar-Jonah to be convicted of a crime that I did not believe he did,” Zach’s mother told reporters for an Associated Press story. Zach’s mother remains hopeful that the police would someday reopen the case involving her son, a move that seems unlikely.
Zachary Ramsay Memorial Plaque
In light of Zach’s mother’s statement professing her belief in Bar-Jonah’s innocence in the disappearance of her son, Prosecutor Brant Light asked that the charges against Bar-Jonah associated with Zachary Ramsay be thrown out. Light said that because of Zach’s mother’s statements, he didn’t believe that there was any way that he could win the case against Bar-Jonah. A judge agreed with him and, in October 2002, all charges against Bar-Jonah related to the Zachary Ramsay case were dismissed.
In December 2004, the Montana Supreme Court declined to hear Bar-Jonah’s appeals and upheld his convictions and sentences for the sexual abuse cases. It seems almost a certainty that Bar-Jonah will die behind the walls of the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge.
UPDATE:Accused Cannibal, Convicted Sex Offender Dies in Prison Monday, April 14, 2008
DEER LODGE, Mont. — Convicted sex offender Nathaniel Bar-Jonah, who authorities accused of killing and cannibalizing a young boy in Great Falls, was found dead in his cell early Sunday at the Montana State Prison.
Sunday morning, shortly after shift change at 6 a.m., Bar-Jonah was found unresponsive in his cell, prison spokeswoman Linda Moodry said.
“Emergency medical response was initiated and he was transported to Powell County Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 7:06 a.m.,” Moodry said in a written statement.
Moodry said the cause of death is unknown at this time. She added that Bar Jonah had been in poor health recently and said an autopsy will be performed by the state medical examiner to determine cause of death.
The death is under investigation by Department of Corrections investigators in cooperation with the Powell County Sheriff’s Office, Moodry said.